Synopsis: A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.
Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry
Director: Danny Boyle
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s not like we haven’t had a movie featuring the music of The Beatles before. Starting with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 starring the quartet from Liverpool themselves followed by 1965’s Help! and 1968’s Yellow Submarine, the songs lived on in more films. There was the infamous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1978, the same year future Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis made the underrated comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Along with the various biopics and documentaries, I can’t forget 2007’s powerhouse but eternally divisive Across the Universe which found director Julie Taymor incorporating the music of The Beatles into an original story within a full blown movie musical.
What would happen, though, if The Beatles never became famous and their music never heard? What if only one person remembered their songs and claimed them as his own, riding their timeless sincerity and undeniable musicality to potential fame and fortune? That’s the set-up promised by the supposed romantic comedy Yesterday and judging from the trailers and promos I was expecting a light musical fantasy positing an intriguing question to a summer audience. Halfway through the summer, a movie free of exploding planets and avenging superheroes was a tune I was interested in hearing.
How strange, then, to find Yesterday one of the more heavy-handed films so far this summer. There are many elements of the movie that work fairly well independently of each other but put them all together and there is a perplexing discord no one can overcome. Looking at the pedigree of those involved, including an Oscar winning director, a much-lauded screenwriter known for making his comedic romances float without being fluff, and two appealing leads, this should have been a slam dunk sleeper summer hit. Instead, it just becomes a snooze.
Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is getting ready to hang up his guitar for good. Living with his parents after quitting job as a teacher, he’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter while working a part time job at a local superstore. The gigs organized by his childhood friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) aren’t leading to anything of substance and though his friends are loyal supporters, the work he’s putting out into the world isn’t catching fire. The night of his last gig, after telling Ellie he’s quitting, he’s struck by a bus during a worldwide blackout, losing two teeth in the process. It’s not the only thing lost when the lights go out.
Shortly after he recovers, he’s plucking out the notes to ‘Yesterday’ for Ellie and his friends and discovers not only do they not know the song, they’ve never heard of the men that wrote it or the famous band they were a part of. Searching the internet for John Paul George Ringo only brings back the page for Pope John Paul II and looking for The Beatles keeps directing him to the Wikipedia page for insect. Could it be that the entire world had forgotten…or that they never existed at all? At first, Jack is reluctant to use the music to his advantage but the more positive responses he gets the more emboldened he becomes to “write” more and more of the back catalog for The Fab Five. The only trouble he faces is remembering the lyrics to several key songs…after all, if the songs only exist in his head the lyrics aren’t scribbled down anywhere for him to reference. That’s why he struggles mightily with the complex ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and mixes up the order of ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.’
As Jack starts to skyrocket to fame, his relationship with Ellie changes from chums to maybe something more. All these years they have been best friends…but were both hoping for love to blossom and waiting for the other to make the first move? With Jack’s path taking him away from home and keeping the two apart, the movie unfortunately tries to shoehorn in a romance that doesn’t feel like it wants to be there. Part of that problem is that, for as likable as Patel and Collins are individually, they generate absolutely no romantic chemistry at all. In the friends department, they are believable as pals but every time they are supposed to be pining for each other there are no sparks created. I get that Yesterday is first and foremost supposed to wear its romance on its sleeve but that the movie keeps returning to this plot that utterly halts any and all forward progress is a major failure. Without any true pull for the audience to root for Jack and Ellie to be together, I was left wondering if they were meant to be a couple at all. Why? Because the movie laws say they should be? It’s not like either make any huge sacrifice (save for a hammy grand gesture near the climax) for the other…I just couldn’t understand why we should care.
Some of that is the fault of the script from Curtis (About Time) which is uncharacteristically free of heart. What I’ve always appreciated about the way Curtis fashions a screenplay is the way he is able to bring not only the two leads together in a witty way but in the method he involves the supporting players as well. Think about the ensemble casts of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Yes, the stars stick in your mind but so do the nicely drawn people surrounding them. That’s another problem here. Aside from Patel and Collins, the supporting cast in Yesterday are completely forgettable. The ones that stick out do so for the wrong reasons. As Jack’s annoying friend and roadie Rocky, Joel Fry (Paddington 2) is basically the exact same character Rhys Ifans played much better (and to 100% more laughs) in Notting Hill. Treating her performance like an extended SNL sketch, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) squares herself as Jack’s Los Angeles manager to be so nasty that what is supposed to be funny just comes off as mean-spirited and, ultimately, exasperating. McKinnon started as such a breath of fresh air but her act is stale. Playing himself in an extended cameo, Ed Sheeran shouldn’t quit his day job.
The biggest issue with the movie is the director. At the end of the day Danny Boyle (Trance) was just, I think, not the right director for this film. Though he’s shown an agility with movies that have a bit of a fantastical edge to them (go watch Millions if you don’t believe me), he seems totally lost at how to keep Yesterday from dragging almost from the beginning. The movie should have a snap to it, especially considering the numerous up-tempo numbers sung by Patel who has quite a lovely singing voice. Instead, these musical moments feel cold and unwelcoming. For a movie with so many magical points of interest there is little whimsy to be had. Curtis introduces an extra twist to the circumstances where we find out that it’s not just The Beatles that were erased from existence and Jack isn’t the only one that remembers how things once were…but Boyle never takes those ideas further so they become footnotes to the unexplained phenomena instead of additional clues.
In some ways I wonder if this wouldn’t have worked better as part of some sort of Black Mirror-ish type of show. Pushing up against the two-hour mark, the film struggles to justify that length and stretches on longer than it has to. One thing I will say that it has going for it (aside from the soundtrack which I secured fairly quickly) was that I didn’t quite know what to expect from the ending and what I thought would happen didn’t. There was an easy way to end the movie and a more complicated resolution and the film took the road less traveled. I don’t think it will satisfy the average movie-goer, though the woman next to me was bouncing around in her seat throughout and practically dancing during the hummable closing credits. Under the watchful eye of a director less interested in reality and the recasting of McKinnon’s character, Yesterday would be an improvement. Right now, it’s helter skelter.